National Writer: Charles Boehm

John Herdman explains Canada to Toronto FC move: “I need a different path now”

John Herdman intro presser

John Herdman declared his desire to revitalize Toronto FC, much like he did the Canada men’s national team, as the Reds introduced him as their new head coach in a formal press conference Tuesday afternoon.

While the CanMNT topped the 2022 Concacaf Octagonal qualifying round and can look forward to co-hosting a World Cup in three years’ time, TFC are mired in losses and infighting, adrift at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table on a 13-game winless skid across all competitions.

Yet Herdman called his new job one that “any coach in North America would give a left arm, right arm to get,” pointing to the club’s ambition and successful recent past, and his own desire to work with players more regularly than a national team setup allows.

“I think the résumé outlines, with the staff that we work with, that we gravitate to this type of situation where there's a huge opportunity,” said the Englishman, who also attained success with Canada’s women before moving to the CanMNT in 2018.

“This is a massive club with a huge heritage, and we all believe that it will get there pretty soon. So coming into this setting is almost perfect for the experiences that we have, working with the culture here to refocus, to reinvigorate, not only the staff but the players, to get to that next level. And that next level is there for Toronto FC. It's a club that we know can reach it.”

Herdman and his incoming staff, which he did not list off by name save for Robyn Gayle, the former Canadian women’s national teamer who served as Canada Soccer’s “excel mental and cultural manager” for both the women’s and men’s squads, will officially take the TFC reins on Oct. 1.

Insigne & Bernardeschi

In the meantime he’ll complete the handoff to interim CanMNT coach Mauro Biello, then evaluate the situation at his new club as interim coach Terry Dunfield – who Herdman said will remain part of the setup at TFC – leads the Reds through their next five matches. That includes taking stock with high-paid and oft-disgruntled Italian internationals Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi.

“Those players are a massive part of the TFC picture,” said Herdman of the high-priced Designated Players. “That's a process that I'll be evaluating through my tenure. I've got [general manager] Jason Hernandez, who's had some deep experiences with these players as well, that’ll be helping guide what that roster will look like in the new season.

“But for me, it's a process, now really going towards understanding those, the antecedents behind the performances we've seen, and ultimately, the motivations of every player, and to find out how committed people are to taking this club to the next level, because that's the demand. That's the expectation.”

Leaving CanMNT

His move is surprising given the sky-high optimism around the CanMNT – and the contract extension he’d signed through 2026 – just a few months ago. Paced by rising talents like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, Les Rouges bested traditional regional powers Mexico and the United States on the road to Qatar ‘22, then impressed observers with a valiant but ultimately winless showing at their first World Cup appearance since 1986.

But subsequent revelations about the tenuous state of the federation’s finances, tumult at its executive level and labor unrest with both national teams’ players’ associations have changed the outlook.

“Coming out of Qatar, in order to take another four years with Canada, at that time you feel the motivation and the excitement of what you experienced there, and the potential,” said Herdman. “We also feel that there's another level to come from this team. It needs freshness, it needs a different voice. There's an element of that.

“But also the organization. I think the organization's undergoing a level of leadership change, and for me, this is the time. You feel that in your gut, you feel in your heart, that there's a moment it's time to step off and go and fulfill another dream. And that dream was to be on the grass with players day in, day out, developing people in the way that you haven't had that opportunity, probably since we were in our residencies with the women's national team.”

Though he left plenty unsaid, Herdman made oblique references to problems – “deep down, it's been a battle,” he said – around a program with an uncertain future despite the rich promise of 2026.

“I've given everything, literally everything, and my staff have as well. This is fresh, it's new, it's energetic. And we're ready, we're ready for change,” he said. “As a human being, you go through these processes in your cycle, you just feel it, in your guys, in your heart, with your family, and I’ve had that feeling for a while. It's not something that's just crept up on us, I think the team has been changing and things are progressing at Canada Soccer in ways or changing there, that for me, I need a different path now.”

New challenge

The federation’s budget limitations have lately begun to take a more explicit toll on programming. Interim general secretary Jason DeVos stated earlier this summer that funding constraints might prevent the CanMNT from playing games this fall despite Concacaf Nations League action looming in November. Canada will visit Japan for an October friendly, but did not schedule matches in the upcoming September international window.

“There's been a lot of, I'd say noise, that you've had to deal with,” said Herdman. “I think with all of those elements, that's where this team are at currently coming out of the back of a World Cup with labor disputes and deals that – individuals with deals that challenge the culture. It’s not been easy, there's no doubt.

“With all the agendas at play,” he added, “and I think you're well aware in the media of many of these agendas that are at play in the Canadian soccer landscape, I can walk away there proud, with many memories, with some great relationships still intact, and excited for the future of Canada Soccer. We have a 2026 World Cup and so much to look forward to.”